Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
art, Germany, Life in Berlin, people, politics

Weekend Trips from Berlin: documenta14 in Kassel

Kassel is a 3-4 hour train ride from Berlin. It is a strange mix of regal buildings and monuments from its time as a princely residence, and bland concrete.

In the town’s main square, fountains arch hopefully into the sky only to land directly into to drains a couple of metres away. However, the small town is most notable for documenta, a contemporary art exhibition which takes over its galleries, museums and public spaces for a period of 100 days every five years.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire

After I had exhausted my two-day exhibition ticket, I visited the marble bath, where the tour guide asked me if I had enjoyed documenta 14. I said I had, very much.

“Gut,” she said, surprised. “Alle meckern.” (Everyone’s complaining.)

And she’s right. Everyone is complaining. The well-known writer Moritz von Uslar went so far as to tweet that he found the Zeit’s weekly journalists meeting more inspiring than anything he experienced at this year’s documenta. Here’s the thing: He is wrong.

different perspectives: documenta14This year’s documenta was surprising, wonderfully curated and impactful. For this first time this year, the art exhibition was split between two locations: Athens and Kassel, acknowledging the two different sides of Europe, one destitute, one rich, one central, and one at its southern edge that deals with a stream of migrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa.

And it was this alternative, disorientating, multi-sided view of Europe that dominated the exhibition. For example, Janine Antoni’s wonderful Slumber posits the idea that the fabled adventures of Ulysses had perhaps all taken place in  Penelope’s dreams. The Sámi artist Máret Ánne Sara presented us with an alternative perspective of Norwegian history, and Gordon Hookey hit us with a big, bold, political statement about Aboriginal people and Australia.

Altogether, the exhibition was political, unapologetic, anti-neo-libralist, and anti-capitalist. Probably, exactly, the kind of thing a white, German man like von Uslar, who is primarily interested in other white, German men didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, or whatever.

I found that looking at art for a couple of days was nourishing. The fresh and interesting ideas, the visual and cerebral excitement, the new perspectives and experiences you engage in, if you are open to it, makes you look at everything in a new way. At one point, me, and the entire group of people I was with, all stopped to look at this lamp fixture on the side of a building. Wasn’t it weird?

fascinating lamp fixture kassel
Fascinating lamp fixture

Artists and their works only do half the job, you have to meet them half way. Obviously, not everything is for everyone, but to call an entire, massive exhibition uninspiring and to rubbish the work and ideas of some of the most exciting contemporary artists in the world in one tweet reveals more about the tweeter than about his subject.

Documenta14 is on until 17th September 2017 in Kassel.

 

Shop selling fireworks in Berlin for New Year's Eve
Berlin, Germany, Humour, Life in Berlin

Why the Germans turn into werewolves on New Year’s Eve

Over the last few days, firecrackers and rockets have been filling the air with smoke and the smell of gunpowder. As usual, the Germans have been getting warmed up for New Year’s Eve — the one night of the year when they go completely crazy.

Shop selling fireworks in Berlin for New Year's Eve
After my first New Year’s Eve in Berlin, I bought my first ever fire extinguisher — and I have been the proud owner of one ever since. For there is only one word for what takes place here on New Year’s Eve: Carnage.

People ignite batteries on the streets, throw rockets off balconies and firecrackers into bins and trams. This recording of a New Year’s Eve drive through Berlin that went viral last year illustrates the madness:

Amidst all the noise and confusion, you’ll sometimes hear a dog barking its head off as if trying to figure out what on earth possessed the humans. I, too, ponder a similar question every year: What happens to the Germans on New Year’s Eve?

Among expats, the common joke is of course that the Germans haven’t started a war in a while, so they need to blow things up once a year. I don’t buy that explanation, but maybe someone from Germany’s Ministry of Economy should look into it, because it might just be cheaper to have an actual war than to carry on like this. This year, the Germans spent 15o million on explosives. New Year’s celebrations usually result in around 12,000 fires and more than 30 million euros worth of damage to cars, houses and other property. Last year, in Berlin alone, the fire brigade responded to 1500 emergency calls. The night always ends in countless injuries and even deaths.

Just recently, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) proposed banning fireworks in Stuttgart altogether. Clearly, we have a problem when even the far right party of Germany thinks that things have gone too far. Another attempt to get things under control came from Klinikum Dortmund, a German hospital that publicised an image of a mangled hand resulting from a firecracker accident on Wednesday. I doubt this will change anything, however, because New Year’s Eve is to Germans what the full moon is to werewolves.

For most of the year, the Germans are busy wearing sensible shoes, putting their rubbish into the correct bins and following rules and regulations. Everyone is just so efficient and responsible and good. And then, on New Year’s Eve, they completely transform.

Take for example, the environment – something the Germans are usually very concerned about. On New Year’s Eve, the sheer number of fireworks let off makes January 1st is the most polluted day of the year. Or safety — if you try crossing the road when the pedestrian light is red, about ten people will point out your error and tell you that you are setting a bad example for children. But on New Year’s Eve, drunk parents will hold lit fireworks in their hands while standing next to their children without a second thought for safety.

Clearly, the Germans repress their wild sides for the entire year to such an extent that it eventually has to break out in a terrible way. They are like those children with very strict parents who at some point go completely wild. The best solution would be for everyone to just let loose a little at regular intervals throughout 2017…maybe go out in the rain without a waterproof coat, be a few minutes late for an appointment, chuck some brown glass in the white glass bin, jaywalk, go crazy.

Berlin, Germany, Life in Berlin, politics

A #Brexit Playlist

Stunned. There’s nothing else to say about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. For the past few months, I’ve been reassuring everyone the Brexit wouldn’t happen. I mean, us Brits like to complain, but we’re not complete morons.

It turns out that we are, proving that a) people are stew-pid-er than you think, and b) there is an Abba song for every situation.

Here is your Brexit playlist – or playlists, a separate one for Britain and Europe, since that’s the way it’s going to be…

Britain:

Crazy by Gnarls Barkly

Knowing me, Knowing You by Abba

London Calling by The Clash

The End by The Doors

Europe:

Take A Chance On Me by Abba

If You Leave Me Now by Chicago

Rolling in the Deep by Adele

I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

What wold be on your Brexit playlist? Post any ideas below!

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

Pegida

Icky as it is, I’m going to have to touch the whole Pegida thing because I saw this BBC video yesterday, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum for the last few months, you’ll know that Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (so wordy!), is a new movement that has been holding weekly marches in major German cities.

The group claims not to be racist or xenophobic, but like all “I’m not a racist but…” statements, there’s nothing not-racist about it.

Surprisingly, many people have turned out in support of Pegida. On Monday, about 18.000 people took to the streets of Dresden, while around 4,000 people joined a counter-demonstration. The group has not been as successful in other cities such as Berlin, where Pegida opponents outnumbered supporters.

The first guy in the video was predictable; “Germany for Germans” is a phrase you’d expect to hear at one of these things, along with the ‘no mosques’ stuff. Of course, he neglected to tackle details like how exactly one defines a German. Is it a race? What if you are of Vietnamese origin but have a German passport? What if you German but have converted to Islam? What if you are Turkish but support Germany in the World Cup? And what about that CDU politician who does a good job of pretending to be German, but with a name like David McAllister, has to be Scottish?

And what happens when all the non-Germans leave? The country would shrivel up and die – literally. Germany’s aging population means that the meagre working population would collapse trying to support all the pensioners. In fact, immigration is the only sensible way out of this problem. And what about Germans elsewhere? You can’t swing a cat in London without hitting one – should we gather them up and send them, kicking and screaming, back to the Fatherland?

I recently visited The British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition (visited by Merkel today), which illustrates that defining Germany is a shifty business too. The German Nation was originally an idea, consisting of many different territories and peoples, ranging from Austria and the Czech Republic to parts of Romania. Clearly, the mapped boundaries of Germany were questionable to Hitler, who figured that Poland was part of German territory. By reverse logic, should Germany accept Polish, Czech and Romanian immigrants?

And about the mosques – should the constitution upon which modern Germany is founded, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination, be re-written? Anyway, I’m sure the nice man has thought it all through. He’s grand. What stunned me was the woman talking about her four daughters with long blonde hair.

It reminded me of a propaganda photograph I saw at the Topographie des Terror in which a Jewish man who had a Christian girlfriend was forced to hold a sign saying he raped a Christian girl.

The idea of the purity of one’s women being polluted by outsiders is a primitive narrative. It is the oldest fear-mongering tactic in the book. It was used in the United States to justify lynchings in the South and now, in Germany, it is toppling out of an articulate woman’s mouth – without any shame or awareness of what she is actually saying.

So why the rise of Pegida? It could be down to timing; Germany’ s recent intake of more immigrants than ever before coupled with sufficient time passing since the war might mean that people no longer feel there is a stigma attached to marching in the streets, waving German flags and expressing such views.

In theory, the Germany was supposed to be ‘de-Nazified’ after the war, but a look at Topographie des Terror exhibition demonstrates that this was not the case; judges, politicians, and civil servants remained in their positions for the most part, and there was a real reluctance to dig up the past and prosecute war criminals.

Now, these buried views appear to be resurfacing. Pegida is attracting a mix of people of all ages, from right-wing activists to ‘normal’ citizens, and a recent poll of just over 1,000 people by Stern magazine found that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islam march if Pegida organised one near their home.

What do you think about Germany’s Pegida phenomenon?

Germany, history, Humour, Life in Berlin, politics

The German State and the Church (with Father Ted)

The Bavarian and I recently visited his hometown (well, village) to attend his nephew’s christening.

During the service, he dug a sweet wrapper out of his coat pocket and tossed it onto the pew, hissed into my ear about how fat the priest was (the priest was thin), complained about how stingy the Catholics were (the church was not heated) and muttered “useless little beggars” as he passed the priest’s helpers on his way out (they were holding contribution baskets).

Clearly, The Bavarian has issues with the church. Rather than attributing this to his usual irrational eccentricity, I’m putting it down to the unique relationship between the German state and the church.

IMG_3003Despite Europe’s secular values, Germany remains closely entwined with the church.

In fact, if Turkey were as non-secular as Germany, there would be no question of it even being considered for EU membership.

The German State currently pays about half-a-billion euros per year to the church as a result of 200-year-old contracts drawn up during German mediatisation – a series of property transfers from the church to the state that took place between 1795 and 1814. That’s half a billion euros of everyone’s taxes – whether they are Catholics, Protestants, atheists or Jedi, at a time when Europe is in financial crisis and Germany is pushing for austerity and a balanced budget.

On top of that, the German state subsidises bishops wages, priest’s salaries, events such as Kirchentage (church congresses), church-run kindergartens, schools, hospitals, care homes, the maintenance of religious buildings – the list goes on, and it adds up to billions.

The church runs so many institutions (schools, hospitals etc) in Germany that it is the country’s second largest employer after the public sector.

As if all this wasn’t enough, when you register yourself as a resident in Germany, you are asked to state your religion. If you answer with ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, you are promptly charged again in the form of church-tax (Kirchensteuer). In classic German form, when an American friend said he was ‘Southern Baptist’, the box marked ‘cult’ was ticked. He was offended, until he realised that this exempted him from paying the additional tax.

Church-tax is calculated at 8% or 9% of your income tax (depending on what state you live in) – no small amount – thereby provoking many people to leave the church upon receiving their first pay cheque – a privilege for which they must of course pay an administration fee.

In July 2008, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that charging a fee for leaving the church was an infringement of religious liberty – but most German states still charge (between €10-60). In Berlin, it’s free, causing the church to complain that the city is positively urging members to drop like flies.

If anything is making people leave though, it’s this whole church-tax business itself. When you see a significant amount of your pay being taken away, you start questioning your beliefs and whether you really want to belong to the church.

Also, the binding of money with religion seems crude. After all, wasn’t it the Catholics trying to sell places in heaven that incensed Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door, causing one of the biggest schisms in Western Christianity? Have they learned nothing?!

And on a spiritual level, can one really leave the church via bureaucratic means? I thought Catholics had to be ex-communicated by the pope himself, like Henry VIII.

I know a woman in Ireland who wanted to officially leave the church to demonstrate her outrage following the child-abuse scandal – she was still writing letters to Brussels a year later. It’s almost impossible for the Irish to leave the church (she eventually did it), unless they move to Germany, in which case they just need to fill out some paperwork.

The Bavarian was the first person in his family to leave the church. He waited till he was far away from his village so as not to embarrass his mother. However, his glee was cut short, because soon afterwards, the Protestants started charging him church-tax. He was practically foaming at the mouth when he wrote to them saying that he was not nor ever had been a Protestant. The response he received said he had to prove it. This would have been tricky if he hadn’t recently left the Catholics, which was proof enough that he would never go near the Protestants – but the system does sometimes prove Kafkaesque.

What is especially opaque is the question of where all the money goes. Despite being financed by German taxpayers, the church is not obliged to disclose its spending – and it doesn’t. The bureaucracy is clueless as to how much real estate the church owns in this country, even though it’s one of Germany’s biggest property owners. For any other individual, corporation or body, this would be unthinkable.

What was revealed earlier this year is that the Bishop of Limburg spent over 10 million euros on his private residence alone – who knows what other skeletons are clacking around in the church’s walk-in wardrobe.

Despite all this, people are still christening their children in the alpine villages of Bavaria. One aspect of this is faith, although I suspect The Bavarian’s sister does not really believe in the prospect of her child languishing in purgatory in the after-life. It didn’t seem like the right time to survey the congregation about the strength of their belief, but I suspect the conversation would have gone something like this:

So why the christening? Tradition. What The Bavarian’s wrath blinded him from was the warm sight of children lighting their Taufkerzen (baptismal candles) together. The ceremony was the chance for the family to unite in good faith, and then eat cake.

On the other hand, the desire to protect tradition supports a deep-rooted conservatism; a system in which doctors and nurses are afraid to leave the church or re-marry because it affects their job prospects in church-run hospitals, a patriarchal system (it was only yesterday that the first female bishop for the Church of England was named, which indicates just how behind they are – not to mention the Catholics), an unaccountable system (how is the money being spent?), a system under which The Bavarian was taught ‘religion’ in school by a priest who only covered Christianity (in London, we were taught about the five major religions by a person who had a degree in the subject), and a system which allowed the abuse of thousands of children.

The New Yorker’s recent, brilliant profile of Merkel pointed out that the current trend of German conservatism is keeping her in power (Merkel, as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, does not support any change regarding the relationship between church and state).

The need to keep status quo and fear of what will replace the Christian tradition prevails, but there are still other European traditions – enlightenment, humanism, democracy – to build on. Maybe it’s time more people left their crumpled sweet wrappers on the pews and walked away.

Germany, history, Literature

Vansittartism

Last Wednesday, I  learnt a new word that filled me with a mixture of glee and shame at Hans Vaget’s lecture Vansittartism Revisited. Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and the Threat of World War III at The American Academy Berlin.

“Vansittartism” is a  Germanophobic doctrine, set out by former British foreign minister Lord Vansittart in his BBC radio addresses and book Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941). It states that there is no difference between German leaders (at that time the Nazis) and the German people.

According to Vansittart, the Germans are characterised by “envy, self-pity and cruelty” and Nazism had “finally given expression to the blackness of the German soul”. He based his view on the fact that the Germans had been involved in five wars in the past 100 years (the three wars of German unification and the first and second world wars.) His analysis completely ignored the role of Austria, where Hitler was born and his views formed, (like the Austrians themselves, who in an act of collective amnesia forgot their Nazi past and blamed the Germans.)

As you can imagine, I was nudging the Bavarian with glee during this definition of his people. When I was young, I read Roald Dahl’s The Twits, and I think it is the book that has most defined my approach to marriage – a series of pranks and oneupmanships. The glee came tinged with shame, because Vansittart’s rhetoric is both ridiculous and racist. As Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil makes clear, peoples of every occupied country (except maybe the Danes) were complicit in the terrible crimes committed during WWII.

The lecture, however, provided food for thought. Vaget focussed on the reception of Vansittart’s ideas in the German exile community. Famously, it was a matter of contention between Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht in the USA. While Brecht dismissed Vansittartism completely (as a communist, he made a strong distinction between the German people and those in power), Mann was more ambivalent. His thoughts on Vansittart’s ideas varied at different times in his life, but the lecture proposed that overall, he took Vansittartism seriously and his view was closer to that Willy Brandt – at that time in exile in Sweden.

What is clear, however, is, notwithstanding the fact that Vansittartism is a racist product of the British Empire at war with Germany, the questions it raises – Why the Germans? How could a country that produced some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals be responsible for such barbarity? Who is to blame? – are still relevent.

food, Life in Berlin

Germany wakes up to the fry-up as British cuisine takes off in Berlin

Just read an article in The Guardian about an apparent rise in the popularity of British cuisine in Berlin

Is there really any such thing as British ‘cuisine’? (especially as curry is the most popular dish in England) Is it just that there are more Brits here now? Who knows…

Germany, history

The British Germans

Interesting radio programme on the BBC called The British Germans, currently available on iPlayer. Programme summary from the BBC below:

The British armed forces are due over the next decade to complete a final withdrawal from bases in Germany. But they’ll leave behind a remarkable human legacy – many thousands of former soldiers who have decided to stay in Germany. In this programme Chris Bowlby goes in search of these ‘ British Germans’, and traces their relationship with Germany and Germans. He meets a soldier who was punished by the British army for marrying a German woman just after the end of the Second World War. He hears about the pubs where Brits and Germans learnt each other’s language, the struggle to understand each other’s humour, the belief among many ex-soldiers that Germany offers a better society than Britain. And he finds that the children of British-German relationships are becoming increasingly influential in today’s German society as he meets a potential future German chancellor called David McAllister.

Listen here or read the article on The ‘British’ Germans the war left behind

art, Berlin

Preview Berlin

Preview Berlin 2011, Hangar 2, Tempelhof AirportWe went to the opening of Preview Berlin: The Emerging Art Fair last night.

Sixty-one international galleries, from London to Israel, have set up exhibits in the open space of Hangar 2 of the former Tempelhof Airport.

Most of the galleries are from Germany, and of those, the majority are from Berlin, presenting a good overview of the city’s art scene, unlike the poorly curated Based in Berlin exhibition earlier this year.

As can be imagined, the rangPreview Berlin 2011e of art on display is wide, and each gallery has used their section in a unique way. Sculpture, photography, installations, drawings, paper art – it’s all there in different styles, sizes and materials.

In addition, there are two new projects this year: Video Art Box, presenting contemporary video art by Israeli artists, and Focus Academy, showcasing work from a new generation of young and promising artists from the Bauhaus University of Weimar, the Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Kiel, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Nuremberg.

Preview Berlin is open from 1 – 8 pm, 9th – 11th September 2011 at Hangar 2 of the former Tempelhof Airport. Public Transport: U6 to Platz der Luftbrücke (exit Columbiadamm) or bus no. 104, 284 to Flughafen Tempelhof.

food, Life in Berlin, restaurants and bars

Unsicht Bar, Berlin Mitte

The Unsicht Bar in Berlin is the first blind restaurant in Germany; you eat in pitch black served by blind waiters and waitresses.

The Bavarian’s sister gave us a voucher for the restaurant as a wedding present, which The Bavarian was positively annoyed about. He whined about gimmicky restaurants for the entire journey there – partly because he’s a conservative guy when it comes to dining out and would rather stick to somewhere like Dressler, and partly because now that we’re married he feels free to whine as much as he likes. He was so grumpy that by the time we got to the restaurant he had concocted a wicked plan to buy a yodeling lesson for her wedding present in return.

I, on the other hand, being unaverse to new experiences and a frequent victim of gimmicks, was rather looking forward to it. It didn’t matter that my date was grumpy; I wouldn’t even be able to see his surly face throughout dinner.

Before being led in to the restaurant by our blind waitress, we had to choose from a number of set menus. These were no ordinary menus; they gave you no clue as to what you were ordering save for indicating whether it was vegetarian, fish, beef, lamb or chicken. It was filled with descriptions like ‘the igneous Spaniard lolls in a harsh-sweet bed and relaxes with voluptuous green’, which irritated the Bavarian even more.

I put my hands on the shoulders of the waitress, the Bavarian grudgingly put his hands on my shoulders and we trotted off into the dark like a choo-choo train. It was a strange sensation – after all, we rarely experience pitch blackness and are not used to placing that much trust in a waitress. It didn’t help that she accidently walked into a chair whilst leading us to our table.

The first course arrived, and I realised that there’s a reason why human beings don’t eat in the dark: It’s bloody difficult. I spent the meal ramming forks and spoons into my face at all angles like a delinquent two-year old. Most of the time, when the fork or spoon was inserted into my mouth, it was empty – either because whatever it was had fallen off on the way to my mouth or else because I was doing it wrong – for example stabbing my risotto with the fork thinking it was fish or scooping up a big piece of fish thinking it was risotto.

The Bavarian, on the contrary, was having a great time. He decided to dispense with the cutlery altogether during the first course and ate his chicken and noodle salad with his hands. This sense of liberation expanded to him randomly hitting me on the head whenever he felt like it, drinking his soup straight from the bowl, stealing my spoon and informing me that he was picking his nose. By dessert, he was licking the chocolate off his plate. Around that time, I too, had dispensed with the formalities and ate my ice-cream with my fingers.

All in all, the concept that you experience your food better through your other senses if you eliminate the sense of sight is flawed. You ended up concentrating more on the basic mechanics of eating rather than actually enjoying the food. There was also the problem of getting just the right mix of things from your plate onto your fork so as to make it an enjoyable tasting experience. Added to that, although there were no bones in the fish, there was skin, which I don’t like. As it was dark, I spat it out onto the side of my plate as soon as I realised what I was eating.

Part of the reason you go to a restaurant is the ambience, and this is not the kind of place where you would feel comfortable sitting around in for ages. The courses followed one another swiftly, and for the price (approx. €50 per head excl. wine) the food was average. Normally, we taste each other’s food and inevitably The Bavarian ends up finishing mine. Here, this proved difficult – when he did manage to find my plate with his fork, he ended up eating the fish skin that I’d spat out. Although we had fun, it’s a one-off place.

A couple of positive things came to light though; when we came out of the restaurant we were given a proper menu which informed us of what we had actually eaten. It turned out that The Bavarian had happily munched through a bunch of courgettes after years of claiming that he hated them and screwing up his nose whenever I cooked them. We also came up with a brilliant concept for a new Berlin restaurant; the bunker experience. You’ll be locked up in our basement with some stale bread and canned meat by while alarms, crashes and booms go off outside. Email to make a booking.

Life in Berlin, News, politics

Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade

christopher street day berlin 2010Yesterday was the CSD Parade (or the Gay Pride Parade) in Berlin. The parade ran from Ku’damm to Brandenburg Gate and the entire area from Brandenburg Gate to The Victory Column was converted into a party zone crowded with gays drinking champagne, lesbians drinking beer, drag queens strutting about with seemingly no effort at all in six-inch high-heels and everyone in between.

The location ws perfect due to its proximity to the Tiergarten, which meant that people easily coud slip into the woods for a bit of hanky panky. (Tiergarten has traditionally been a gay cruising area). More poignantly, the city’s memorial for gay holocaust victims is also nearby. Approximately 54,000 men and women were convicted of homosexual acts under the Nazis and 7,000 died in the camps.

Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit gave a speech encouraging tolerance, and the motto for the day was ‘Normal ist anders’. The parade involved 64 groups, and attracted half a million people. However, of the groups in the parade, most of them – apart from the five political parties and a footballers’ group – were commercial groups such as Ikea and DildoKing.

Compared with Pride London, where almost every institution from the Metropolitan Police to teachers’ unions have a float, the Berlin parade seems to be politically impotent. Even the political parties were handing out general manifestos and agendas rather than specific info pertaining to gay rights. Perhaps this is an indicator that despite appearances Germany lags behind England when it comes to championing diversity and equality…

American gender theorist and Berkley lecturer Judith Butler, who was presented with a prize for civil courage on the CSD stage last night, critisied the march as too superficial and commercial. She rejected the prize and claimed preference for the alternative CSD, which due to take place is Kreuzberg next Saturday (see her speech on YouTube).

For more photos, the Tagesspiegel has a good gallery.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

XRPM3YS6FQNF

Life in Berlin, News

Carnival of Cultures

carnival of cultures 2010The Carnival of Cultures (Karneval der Kulturen) is a four-day street festival that takes place in Berlin every year to celebrate the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity.

Now in its 15th year, the carnival is expected to attract approximately 1.4 million visitors between Friday and Monday (21st – 24th May) – the highlight being the parade that took place yesterday involving 4,800 performers from 70 nations.

Although the Germans always gush about Berlin’s multicultiness, my impression as a Londoner has been that the city is unexceptional in this sense apart from its large Turkish population (Berlin has the second biggest Turkish population in the world after Istanbul). So seeing the parade yesterday involving troupes from Thailand to Latin America was a pleasant awakening – there was even a group (albeit small) of Hawaiians.

carnival of cultures thailand 2010

Unlike Notting Hill, this carnival is not limited to one particular ethnic background but  to literally  anyone (there was even a carnival of cultures 2010Flintstones group!) From open bars and living rooms came the clash of different beats, from techno to latino, and stalls selling foods from all over the world lined the streets. Another notable difference was the lack of police presence, restrictions on where you could go and all that rubbish that’s really made Notting Hill more of a hassle than a pleasure to go to in recent years. As a result, despite the hoards of people, there was a feeling of space, safety and general laidbackness in Hallesches Tor and the surrounding areas.

For more info, photos and clips go to the rbb website…

Life in Berlin, News, politics

May Day, Schönhauser Allee

Preparations for the 1st May around the Schönhauser Allee area started a day early; shops boarded up their windows and a police presence in Mauer Park prevented anyone from carrying in glass bottles and weapons. The result was a festive atmosphere, a ratio of two policemen per civilian and a disconcerting absence of beer bottles.

Today, contrary to my expectations, the atmosphere was much the same. I had heard that Berlin turned into a regular war zone on May Day, and this year had the potential to turn violent since a Neo-Nazi march was due to make its way from Bornholmer Strasse, through Schönhauser Allee to Landsberger Allee. The aim of the anti-demo protesters was to stop the demonstration, which the police have the right to do if it turns violent.

As it turned out, the approximatley 600 Neo-Nazis barely managed to make it out of Bornholmer Strasse; they were due to start their march at 12, and, after fires were started and arrests made, got moving at about 2.30 only to be turned back at the corner of Bornholmer Strasse and Schönhauser Allee and sent back home.

Some 250 Neo-Nazis foresaw that their effort to demonstrate might prove futile, as happened in Dresden in February of this year, and started an unofficial and therefore illegal protest on the Kudamm. Bottles and stones were thrown, and they were promptly arrested.

However, around the Schönhauser Allee area, there was hardly any violence. Music played, while families with children, punks, anarchists (mostly identified by their Schwarzer Block style clothing) and hippies danced, sang, shouted slogans, sat in the road, drank and ate and had a party in the traffic-free streets. The atmosphere was so laid back that someone even dragged a sofa out on to the road to sit on.

The diverse crowd no doubt reflected the fact that almost everyone is against the Nazis, and the politicians took advantage of the fact. Wolfgang Thiere, Deputy President of the Deutsche Bundestag (The Bavarian accidentally stepped on his foot once) sat down at Bornholmer Strasse to stop the march, and on the corner of Greifenhagener Strasse, Christian Ströbele, the Green MP for Friedrichshain, gave a speech. Representatives from the SPD, DKP (communist), the Left Party and the unions (Verdi and DGB) were also waving their flags around.

There was a massive police presence; between six and seven thousand police from all over Germany have come to Berlin for the first of May.  Most of them seemed to come from Bavaria, which pleased The Bavarian greatly.

Police dogs barked while helicopters droned above (apparently, the police increase the sound of their helicopters in crowd situations to make their presence felt) – but there was no need for all that as everything remained peaceful apart from a few trouble makers.

Tonight, however, will probably be a very different story – in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg it is almost certain that Molotov cocktails, stones and bottles will be lobbed, street fights will break out and cars set on fire.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sorry about the spelling mistake in the above video – can’t seem to replace the video on YouTube, so I’m just going to leave it!

Life in Berlin, politics

Summer in Berlin

Yesterday, it felt like summer for the first time in the city and the Berliners were out doing what they do best; lounging around in parks, cafes and restaurants. 

Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg
Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg

In Prenzlauer Berg the place to be was Mauer Park, where people were playing frisbee, basketball, bowls, walking on tightropes, juggling, barbecuing, singing, dancing, making music, listening to music, talking, sleeping, taking off their clothes and tanning, strolling around the flea market, eating and drinking beer….lots of beer. 

In the middle of the park, there was a mad version of karaoke going on, where anyone could step up from the crowd of about 500 people and entertain them with a song. I’ve just found out that this is a regular Mauer Park tradition – they even have a facebook page –  here’s a clip from last year…

Ah, I love Berlin in the summer. When it’s sunny in this city, the punks, families and bohemian types all come out to play and the city flaunts its laid back, cool vibe that is part of its charm. 

Next weekend however, Mauer Park will probably be very different, no matter how sultry the weather; on May 1st Neo-Nazis from all over Europe are gathering in Prenzlauer Berg to demonstrate, and where there are Nazis there are leftists and other protesters.

Although Mauer Park is traditionally a place where people gather on the 1st May, and has seen its fair share of riots, it has calmed down in recent years. In 2009 there was no rioting at all, just a party. This year however I expect Mauer Park will become a battle field, very different from the peace, love and beer atmosphere of yesterday.

Film, Life in Berlin

Short Film evenings: Monthly screenings at Cafe Hilde and Sputnik Kino

Here in Berlin, every second person I meet claims to be a film-maker so it is no wonder that there is a continuous stream of films being made and displayed in the city.

Two free monthly film screenings have recently cropped up; A Night of Short Film Wonderment run by The Privateer at Cafe Hilde in Prenzlauer Berg, and Testbild at Sputnik Kino in Kreuzberg.

They are very different – probably a reflection of their very diverse locations.

Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe HildeA Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe Hilde is all very sophisicated; the crowd, dominated by ex-pats, sip on cappucinos and beers whilst being entertained by a range of high quality films (including BAFTA, Oscar and Berlinale winners and nominees) that centre around a certain theme (last week’s theme was music). You can normally see the programme of films that will be shown beforehand at Cafe Hilde’s website.

With Testbild on the other hand, you never quite know what you’re getting. Film-makers turn up with their films half an hour early and hand them over to be played. The crowd is mostly German, although many international film-makers have shown their films there and a number of films are in English.

As can be expected with such a format, the films vary vastly in terms of quality – from surprisingly good to astonishingly bad…

The vibe in the kino bar is relaxed; people come and go and there is usually a dog running about. What’s really special is that after each film is shown, the film-maker gets the chance to talk about their film and the audience can ask questions.

It’s great if you are a film-maker because it’s a chance to interact with other people in the business and see what they are doing, which is often more useful than watching highly polished pieces made with higher budgets.  And if you are a film-maker (or a creative of any discipline) you’ll understand when I say that there is also a deep satisfaction to watching somebody else’s failures; it boosts our delicate egos, and gives us a chance to bitch at someone else’s work rather than our own.

Germany, history, politics

When in doubt, blame the Germans

One of the great things about going out with a German is that you can always have the last word in every conflict by saying, “Yes, but we won the war”. Or something to that effect. “Yes, but we didn’t murder six million Jews” or “Yes, but you started two world wars” also work. Even if the argument is about whose turn it is to mop the living room, The Bavarian will invariably feel a stab of guilt, pick up the mop and start cleaning in the furious manner in which Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands. It’s a dirty trick, but I’m not the only one exploiting the great burden of German Guilt.

It seems that the EU’s policy of ‘don’t mention the war’, which is essential if Europe is to move on unitedly, is not working. Germany has paid her reparations and shown much good will and support to both Poland and Greece (Walter Wullenweber of Stern Magazine recently calculated that Germans have given each Greek $12,200 since 1981), which begs the question, when will the wounds of the war heal in Europe? Will this guilt trip ever end?

For a full account, Time magazine has a good article covering this Greece-Germany conflict.

Life in Berlin, News

Berliners track Google’s Street View Car

In Britain we’re used to constantly being watched by Big Brother, but in Germany, due to the country’s history, invasion of privacy is a big deal.

Although things like CCTV cameras are gradually and inevitably growing in this country, it’s nice that the Germans make a bit of a fuss about it once in a while. 

Yesterday, when Google’s Steet View Car was drving around Berlin, members of the Free Art & Technology group (F.A.T.) decided to attach a GPS device to it, resulting in a map tracking the car’s movements – until the good folks at Google realised that someone was watching them and took it off.

Google Street View Car being tracked on Google Street View
Google Street View Car being tracked on Google Street View
Germany, history, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs. Munich

Every time I mention the fact that my other half is a Bavarian to a Berliner, they raise their eyebrows and ask how he’s getting along. It’s condescending, this idea that a Bavarian in Berlin is some sort of lederhosen-wearing in-bred farmer holding a weiß wurst in one hand and a weiß beer in another as out of place as Crocodile Dundee in New York.  I tell them that he is getting along just fine, which he is – he likes the laid back atmosphere, the brunches, the culture, the coffee places, the cinemas and drinking beer from the bottle on the U-Bahn. Why shouldnt he?

What I failed to understand was that the Berliners were not merely being condescending in their reaction – they were being nasty. When we went to a Skunk Anansie concert in Berlin a while back, Skin informed the crowd that they were performing in Munich the following night: the crowd booed magnificently.

The obvious reason for this antagonism is that Berlin and Munich are completely different. Even the swimming pools are different, as we discovered today when we visited the Spreewaldplatz swimming pool in Kreuzberg. The Bavarian was devasted to discover that there was no bubbling hot-tub that he could laze in, and that the only thing for him to do was swim. It was not only the lack of big slides and water refuges of over 30° that caused him to mumble “everything’s better in Bavaria” but the fact that you had to stick a Euro into the lockers instead of those little plastic entry coins you get in Bavaria, and little coins into the hairdryers as he used to do as a child. Coming from England, where we have functional swimming pools, I’m more or less delighted by every single German swimming pool I visit, but I have to admit, the swimming pools in Bavaria are the best.

Like most things, it comes down to the fact that Munich is rich, while Berlin is poor. But the differences are endless; Munich is pretty, Berlin is a building site; Munich is conservative, Berlin is liberal; in Munich everything opens early, while Berlin eases itself into the day; Berlin is significantly more multi-cultural; Munich is significantly more Catholic….when I asked a school-friend of The Bavarian’s whether these differences were the reason behind the Berlin/Munich divide, he simply shrugged and said that the Münchners didn’t really bother hating the Berliners too much – they had better things to do.

So what prompted the open-minded peace-loving Berliners to rage against the Münchners? It’s the war, stupid.

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazis. Hitler was popular there, while Berlin had always been a leftist city. In fact, Hitler hated Berlin – it was Goebbels’ idea that the new government should set up in Berlin. As a result, the city was damaged by air raids, and especially by the Battle of Berlin. After the war, Berlin suffered once again when she was split among the allies and consequently the divided by The Wall. While Berlin paid for Munich’s mistakes over decades, Munich prospered – and still prospers now, while Berlin, the great building site, is in ruins.

history, Life in Berlin, Literature

Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof

Dorotheenstädtischen friedhof

It’s not true that the Germans are unromantic; The Bavarian takes me out somewhere special once a week. This week we went to Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery off Chausseestraße in Berlin Mitte, where almost every prominent body in Berlin rests, including…

Bertolt Brecht grave

Bertolt Brecht, novelist and playwright

10 February 1898–14 August 1956

Brecht’s second wife, actress Helene Weigel, is buried next to him. Their house, at Chausseestrasse 125, overlooks the cemetery and is open to visitors.

 

Heinrich Mann grave

Heinrich Mann, novelist and brother of Thomas Mann

27 March 1871 – 11 March 1950

Nearby is a tablet in memorial of his wife Nelly Mann (15 February 1898 – 17 December 1944), who committed suicide in Los Angeles. Heinrich Mann also died in the USA and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica. His remains were relocated here in 1961.

 

Johannes Rau grave

Johannes Rau, former President of Germany between 1999 and 2004, and Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia from 1978 to 1998.

16 January 1931 – 27 January 2006

Rau’s personal motto was “teneo, quia teneor”: I hold because I am held.

 

 Johannes R Becher grave

Johannes R Becher, novelist, expressionist poet and politician

22 May 1891 – 11 October 1958

 The inscription roughly translates to: Completion of a dream, Have I completed my work ends, if not as accomplished. For this was my work sacred mission: service to humanity Future completion.

 

Anna Seghers grave

Anna Seghers, novelist, short story writer and essayist

19 November 1900– 1 June 1983

Anna Seghers (pseudonym of Netty Radványi) is most famous for the novels The Seventh Cross (1942) and Transit (1944), which deal with Nazi persecution. She herself fled to Marseilles and Mexico because of the Nazis, and returned to Berlin in 1947.

 

Arnold Zweig grave

Arnold Zweig, novelist, journalist, polititian

 10 November 1887 – 26 November 1968

Zweig fled Germany when the Nazis came to power like many of the writers buried here – he spent time with Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht during his time in exile.

 

Karl Friedrich Schinkel grave

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect, urban planner, painter and stage designer

 13 March 1781 – 9 October 1841

Responsible for some of Berlin’s greatest buildings including the Altes Museum and the Shauspielhaus. Before the second world war it was said that he who knew Berlin knew Schinkel.

 

Friedrich Hitzig mausoleum

Friedrich Hitzig, architect and student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel

8 November 1811 – 11 October 1881

Another great Berlin architect – he is responsible for the Berlin Armory (now the German Historical Museum) on Unter den Linden among others.

history, Life in Berlin

20th Anniversary of The Fall of The Berlin Wall

20th Anniversary of The Fall of the Berlin WallOn Monday the city celebrated the fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989. To mark the event, a symbolic wall of dominoes that snaked along the old border between east and west was felled, and Angela Merkel, Dmitry Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton gave speeches at the Brandenburg Gate followed by a performance by Bon Jovi.

I had arranged to meet The Bavarian at Cafe Einstein on Unter den Linden, which should have been a short walk from Potsdamer Platz had it not been for the domino wall and various police barricades and checkpoints in the area.  Thus, I was able to contemplate life in Berlin 20 years ago as I walked around the cold, wet city desperately trying to get from East to West Berlin.

The Domino Wall, Berlin 2009
The Domino Wall, Berlin 2009
Brandenburg gate 9 November 2009
Brandenburg gate 9 November 2009

I finally made it after nearly an hour and was looking forward to having a nice cafe latte when The Bavarian promptly informed me that Cafe Einstein was too expensive and that we ought to leave for the Brandenburg Gate in order to find an optimum position. However, as it was raining and everyone had their umbrellas up, our view of the stage was completely blocked. We waited around for about half an hour, then went home to watch the event on TV like the rest of the world.

Twenty years is not such a long time in history, and despite what we have been seeing on the television about the fall of the wall, the people here are not all jumping around with joy nor are they united.  When I got off the train in Potsdamer Platz, where toppling of the domino wall began, someone had scrawled ‘Capitalism Kills’ on one of the walls – it is the type of graffiti that one sees frequently in Berlin. Where we live in Prenzlauer Berg, we have a Communist MP.  It is not unusual to hear people talking about how things were better in the DDR – everyone had a job, it was less stressful, rents and basic goods were cheaper.

The Berlin Wall and Boesebruecke at Bornholmer Strasse
The Berlin Wall and Boesebruecke at Bornholmer Strasse

I recently met Matthais Rau, an East Berliner who was childhood friends with Angela Merkel. He wanted to study medicine, but the state forbid him to because his father was a priest (Merkel also came from a religious family, however she was a member of the young socialist political group – and interestingly did not participate in the protests against the DDR). Rau commemorated the day the wall fell at the point at which he first crossed it – the bridge in Bornholmer Strasse (nicknamed Bösebrücke or Evil Bridge).  This was where the wall was opened first, and also where Merkel crossed.  

Although Matthais is starkly anti-DDR, he also has stories of old friends who got lost in the free market and became impoverished and depressed as a result.

There is also the question of unity – Berliners seem to instinctively know who is an Oestie and who is a Westie, and many people, especially from the old West, express the opinion that although they are happy the wall came down, the people from the East should belong to a different country.

Berlin has no doubt gone through an astounding amount of change over the last two decades – more than any other European country – however it still has a long way to go…

Historical information, links, maps and much more about the Berlin Wall – official Berlin site 

2009 Jahre Mauerfall – the official site about the 20th Anniversary celebrations

Peaceful revolution 1989 / 1990 – exhibition about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events that led to it

BBC: 20 years since the fall of The Berlin Wall

Watch videos about The Fall of the Berlin Wall on YouTube